NEW DELHI — The grieving mother sat in protest on a busy road in India’s capital city and, undeterred by the heavy monsoon showers, repeated to anyone who would listen: Her only child, a 9-year-old girl, had gone out to fetch water from the cooler at the neighborhood crematory and ended up dead.
Told that her daughter had been electrocuted, she rushed to the crematory only to find signs of abuse on the girl’s body. Despite her protests, men at the site quickly cremated her daughter’s body even before the girl’s father could get there — destroying evidence, she said, of the rape she believed they had committed.
The case has stirred a new wave of protests in New Delhi over rampant sexual violence, particularly against women and girls who are low-caste Dalits, as the girl and her family are.
The girl’s parents say that their child was raped and killed by four men, including the crematory’s head priest. The accuse the police in Delhi of not stopping the men from destroying potential evidence, and then detaining and pressuring them to file only a complaint that echoed the priest’s version of what happened — that the child had been electrocuted after stepping on a wire.
The police say that an investigation is underway and that they have arrested the four accused men, who have now been charged with rape, murder and wrongful confinement. The police denied the family’s accusations of negligence and mistreatment.
“The priest said, ‘Don’t make a noise, don’t shout, or else you will have to face a lengthy court case,’” the child’s mother said in an interview with The New York Times. “If she died of electric current, why was he rushing to cremate her without a record?”
(Indian law prohibits the publication of names or any identifying details of rape victims or their families.)
Opposition leaders have raised questions about the handling by New Delhi’s police, who answer to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s central government. Opposition groups, Dalit activist organizations, and youth- and gender-rights activists have held candle vigils and protests near the country’s Parliament, demanding “justice for the nation’s daughter” — a slogan that has become familiar as it is repeated after each brutal assault.
The young girl’s family has set up a protest tent on the main road of the Delhi Cantonment, just a couple hundred yards from the crime scene and not far from a shrine where mother and daughter would beg for alms.
Two dozen security forces guarded the crematory, its gates shut, on Thursday. Both the water cooler and the pyre where the cremation occurred were sealed off with police tape.
The young girl’s family had moved into a single-room apartment in a narrow alley off the main road less than a month ago. She had quickly made friends with the neighborhood children, playing Carrom pool with her downstairs neighbors.
“She was so sensible, so well mannered.” Suman, a downstairs neighbor, said. “And she was tough.”
The apartments don’t have a source of clean drinking water, and residents normally fetch from a pump near the shrine on the main road. The girl would go an extra step, crossing the street to the crematory, which had a water cooler.
She never made it home from her water run on the evening of Aug. 1. Her mother began to grow worried, then the crematory priest sent word that the girl had been electrocuted.
But when she rushed there, she found signs of abuse on her daughter’s body, she said.
“Her hands were bruised, the skin on one hand was peeling off. Her lips were blue and black. I opened her mouth a bit, her teeth were getting blue and black. Her eyes were shut, her hair spread, her clothes were wet. She was lying on the bench inside the crematory,” she said.
The mother said that despite her protests to wait for the girl’s father to arrive and determine what had happened, the priest and the three other men rushed through the death rites and set the body on fire. When her husband arrived and a crowd gathered, some police officers were already there, but they weren’t stopping the forced cremation, two witnesses said.
“The priest said, ‘You are beggars, how will you fight in the court and in the police station?’” she said. “I was going crazy. Her father wasn’t there, he hadn’t even seen her face, and the priest was saying, ‘I will cremate her here.’ I said don’t cremate her! The priest cremated her by force.”
Some in the crowd seized the priest and began beating him and accusing him of rape, witnesses and the family said.
The mother said she and her husband were then taken to the police station where they remained until early the next evening. She said that they were kept in separate rooms, beaten and intimidated by an informer for the police, who was allowed inside and told them to accept the account that the child had died of electrocution and not to mention rape.
Ingit Pratap Singh, the deputy commissioner of police for Southwest Delhi, said the reason for the parents’ remaining for so long in the police station was that they were brought in past midnight and it takes time to file a complaint and take the family before a magistrate when court proceedings begin the next morning. He denied accusations that the police had stood by at the crematory or that the family was mistreated.
Mr. Singh said the couple had not made the charge of rape in the initial complaint when they went before the magistrate. That charge was only added to the file a day later, after the two had met officers of a commission that looks into allegations of abuse and discrimination against members of lower castes.
“But in front of the metropolitan magistrate there was no police,” Mr. Singh said. “Why did they not mention rape before the metropolitan magistrate?”
Rights activists say that local authorities often try to hush up cases like this one. In a similar case in the state of Uttar Pradesh last year, the police delayed filing charges in the alleged gang-rape of a 19-year-old Dalit girl despite the victim’s video statement in the hospital, where she later died of her wounds. Questions of law enforcement bias intensified after the family accused the police of rushing the body to cremation in the dark of the night. The family is still waiting for a trial.
“You see a similar pattern — police have not been able to file a proper investigation report, as a result of which a lot of perpetrators of rape crime go free,” said Ranjana Kumari, the director for the Centre for Social Research, who formerly led the rape crisis intervention center in Delhi. “The conviction rate for crimes against women remains at a dismal 24 percent.” She said that police officers’ caste bias kicks in strongly when the victims are Dalit.
“The police, unfortunately, have been siding with the ruling or the elite class,” Ms. Kumari said. “This has been a pattern in policing in India.”